It’s been a long time coming, but the two candidates running for the 4th Congressional District will meet face to face tonight in what will be their first of three debates. Easy money says it won’t be long before the two take the gloves off. It has been, after all, one long negative race.Incumbent Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat challenger Betsy Markey will debate at 8 p.m. from the campus of Colorado State University (CSU). Moderated by 9News and co-sponsored by The Fort Collins Coloradoan and CSU, the exchange will be aired live on My Channel 20 locally and on C-SPAN nationally.
The close nature of the race in Colorado’s 4th, a traditionally conservative district that encompasses the rural eastern plains and the north Front Range, has propelled it into the national spotlight and attracted nearly $2 million of independent expenditures in the race, almost all of which has been used to attack Musgrave, a Fort Morgan resident who is seeking a fourth term. The race, highly saturated with negative campaigning and advertisements coming from both sides, has intensified in recent weeks as polling has shown Markey, a former Senate staffer to Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar (D), ahead of Musgrave.
Although some media and Colorado politicos may be looking forward to the debate, voters most likely have already made up their minds, political observers say.
“Debates can definitely persuade those who are undecided (but) the stronger someone’s affiliation with a candidate the less vulnerable they are to persuasion,” said CSU political science professor Kyle Saunders, who has been following the race. “However, in the case of the CD 4 race, from the limited amount of evidence we have, most people have made up their mind (7 percent undecided) likely due to Musgrave’s time in office and visible profile.”
The challenges for both candidates heading into the debate are different, Saunders said. Because recent polling suggests most voters know how they are voting in the race already, Musgrave, trailing in the polls, needs to hit a “home run” by either raising Markey’s negative impressions among voters or by raising her own favorability.“We know that as of a month ago, Markey had very low unfavorable numbers and was a comparative unknown,” Saunders said. “Musgrave has attempted to raise those unfavorable numbers with their recent ad campaigns … but it’s hard to know how [many] undecided voters have broken due to the dearth of publicly available polling in this race.”
As for Markey, a never-elected former field director for Salazar and former chair of the Larimer County Democrats, Saunders said she needs to just stay on track, or only hit a “single” at the debate tonight.
“There is no need to hit a home run for Markey,” he said. “This is a chance for Markey to be seen as a calm, cool, moderate, and competent leader and maintain her perceived lead. There is no need for her to be defensive or offensive, just be on the ball and continue doing what she has been doing all along.”
Breaking from political tradition, Musgrave challenged Markey to three debates this year, the other two of which will take place in Greeley and Fort Morgan in coming days. Typically, the challenger proposes the debates.